“No question about it, leaving Edmonds is bittersweet,” said Edmonds Chamber President and CEO Greg Urban as he reflected on his eight-year stint at the organization’s helm. “I’ve built up a fantastic network of friends, business owners, community members. I’ve accomplished a lot that I’m proud about. Yeah, it’s tough to leave.”
A man of multiple talents and skills, the 45-year-old Urban currently spreads himself between managing the chamber full time, serving as chair of the South County Fire Commission Board, managing two Airbnb rentals that he operates out of his Norma Beach-area home, and being a full-time single dad to 6-year-old daughter Ehle. He will be going back to his roots as he relocates to what was his childhood home in northern Illinois.
But it wasn’t an ordinary home.
The Urban family owned, operated and lived in a lakeside resort on the idyllic Chain O’Lakes, an easy hour-and-a-half drive from Chicago, where Greg grew up an integral part of the family management team. And it’s still in the family. Greg’s sister Amanda continues to run the operation, and recently had the opportunity to almost double its size by purchasing the neighboring resort.
Growing up, Greg was involved in both the practical and the business sides of running and maintaining cabins, docks, boats, swimming facilities, bookkeeping, account management, and all the other functions of running a successful resort business that attracted a steady stream of loyal visitors. During this time, the young Urban gained a pretty amazing skill set – the kind that can only be learned by doing.
“In addition to the day-to-day stuff like plumbing and electrical repairs, I was involved in some pretty extensive remodeling like putting in kitchens and baths, account management, customer service, you name it,” he explains. “We did it all ourselves, and one big lesson I learned is that if someone else can do it, I can learn to do it too.”
After graduating with a biology degree from the University of Illinois, Greg — whose father was a dentist — worked for a while managing a dental supply company. But after years spent as an integral part of the family resort business, Urban soon reached his limits of operating someone else’s company. In 2001, he decided to leave the area and go into business with his brother, who had relocated to Puget Sound several years before.
“I wanted a change,” Urban explained. “But when I got here my brother had some other things going on, and the idea of going into business together kept slipping back, so after a few months I decided to branch out on my own.”
He began with property management, using the diverse skills he’d picked up working in the resort business. Soon he was managing 100-plus units in the University District.
The 2000s brought rapid advances in technology, and Urban’s natural curiosity moved him to learn new skills and look for opportunities to use them. He was particularly drawn to how photography and graphic design were opening up to anyone with a computer.
“I had a friend in the graphic design business, and I began working with him in the early 2000s,” he recalled. “This branched out to include a photography/video business, and for the next seven years we focused on covering things like corporate events and weddings. Our approach was unique in that we were able to shoot, edit and produce our video on-site the same day, essentially doing all the traditional post-production work as part of the shoot itself. This meant editing video clips on the fly, piecing them together and presenting a final product to the customer same day. We had a couple of crews working for us, and we covered 60-80 events per year. It could get pretty frantic, but no one else was doing this at the time.”
But the pace was hectic, and by around 2010 Urban decided to phase out of covering weddings and events, and focus more on his own businesses of independent graphic design and property management.
Now an independent local business owner, he joined the Chamber in 2010.
“I went to the networking breakfasts, got to know people and got drawn into volunteering,” he recalled. “In the beginning this was mostly for graphic design, websites, posters, etc. but soon included joining the membership committee. Then in 2012 I was invited to join the chamber board.”
He went on to explain that at the time the chamber was having some issues around staffing and management, which ultimately resulted in the board’s decision to move from being a governing body, which reviewed and decided on the chambers’ day-to-day operations, to become a policy board that would provide overall direction but provide day-to-day operational authority to a president/CEO.
“This took the day-to-day stuff out of the board’s hands,” he explained. “Part of this restructuring included replacing the executive director — who needed the board to sign off on everything he/she wanted to do — with a CEO who had the authority to run things on the ground.”
Of course, Urban threw his hat into the ring. One of 40 who applied for the CEO position, he found himself one of two finalists. While the board initially hired the other candidate, this person resigned only four months into the job and in May 2014 the board officially hired Urban as chamber president and CEO.
“My first day on the job was Cinco de Mayo, 2014,” he recalled with a laugh.
“It was hard taking over,” Urban explained. “The chamber finances needed review and restructuring – the books hadn’t been reconciled in three years – so we needed an actual CPA. Membership rolls were also problematic, and still included members who had previously dropped but were still on the rolls, some who hadn’t paid their dues – it really needed cleaning up. We were also paying for a lot of services we weren’t utilizing – for instance, we were actually paying more for rent on our office copy machine that we were paying to lease our office space.”
During his first 18 months on the job, Urban tackled these problems with what he describes as “an entrepreneurial mindset,” focusing on “cleaning up the things that needed to be fixed,” and bringing the organization back to a firm foundation with a solid understanding of membership numbers and financials.
“After about 18 months we were back to a level situation with numbers I was proud of,” he added. “With what we saved by cutting wasteful spending, we were able to hire an additional full-time staff person, raise salaries, and even add medical and dental benefits.”
Looking back on his eight years with the Chamber, Urban sees this “overall tightening up of the ship” as the accomplishment of which he is most proud.
With the chamber back on an even keel, Urban once again felt the urge to seek new challenges and put up his antennae for something to fill that need.
“I began thinking about political office,” he explained. “But living in unincorporated Snohomish County, I was a bit limited in what I’d be able to run for. In 2019 a slot came up on the South County Fire Board of Commissioners and I filed to run. I won by 34 votes out of more than 32,000 cast, and that was with no active campaigning or spending. I was elected chair in 2021, and again in 2022.”
Many also remember Urban’s role in keeping the chamber afloat during the COVID-19 pandemic, which required the temporary furlough of two staff members after numerous chamber events were canceled. In a news release announcing Urban’s departure, the Edmonds chamber board pointed to his “steady, insightful and determined leadership,” which helped the chamber weather “the past several years of pandemic shutdowns.” Thanks to Urban’s work, the board said, the chamber “has emerged strong, as a community resource and touchstone for commerce in the city of Edmonds.”
Late last year, Urban’s divorce was finalized, giving him custody of daughter Ehle. He takes his role as a father very seriously, and he freely admits that Ehle is now “the primary focus of my life.”
“I spend as much time with Ehle as I can these days,” he added. “I want to spend more, but with being full time at the chamber, chairing the fire commission, and managing two Airbnbs out of our home, my time is tight. I feel like it’s time for a change that will allow me to carve out more time to spend with her.”
He gave notice at both the chamber and the fire commission earlier this year, and along with Ehle is poised to relocate this summer to Illinois, where he and his extended family will join hands to run their growing resort operation.
And in typical Greg Urban fashion, he is already thinking about ways he can augment the family business. He hopes to close a deal shortly after his arrival to purchase an additional property on the lake with three houses that will both give him a place to live and be another jewel in the family crown of lakeside resorts.
“It’s tough for me to leave, but ultimately family is important,” he explained. “Helping to run and build up the resort will have its challenges, but I get to collaborate with family, and Ehle will be part of that.
“I’m really looking forward to teaching Ehle how to fish – including winter ice fishing – snowmobile, boat, swim, all of it,” he added. “This was stuff I did as a kid, and it really shaped my character and understanding of the world.”
Urban plans to stay with the chamber through the Edmonds Kind of Fourth July 4 activities.
The board has advertised for a replacement. The application period closed on June 3, and interviews will be conducted soon.
The chamber invites all to join them for a gala sendoff for Greg at 4 p.m. June 21 at the Salish Sea Brewing Company Boathouse, 180 W. Dayton St. in the Harbor Square business complex.
— Story and photos by Larry Vogel